Haftarat Korach: 1 Samuel—Ultimate Power

June 9, 2021 at 11:52 am | Posted in Korach, Samuel 1 | Leave a comment

The true king of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible is the character of God, portrayed as an anthropomorphic being who delivers orders and decrees, metes out rewards and punishments, and determines the winning side in battles.  God communicates through “his” prophets.  But not everyone is happy with this arrangement.

Korach

Man with Crossed Arms, by Paul Cezanne

When the prophet Moses summons two rebellious leaders from the tribe of Reuben in this week’s Torah portion, Korach, they refuse to come.

Moses sent and called for Datan and for Abiram, sons of Eliav, and they said: “We will not come up!  Is it a small thing that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to make us die in the wilderness?  That tistareir over us, actually histareir?”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:12-13)

tistareir (תִשְׂתָּרֵר) = you play king, you lord it over, you make yourself a ruler.  (A form of the verb שׂרר = rule, direct.)

histareir (הִשְׂתָּרֵר) = playing king, usurping authority.  (The same verb as tistareir.)

Datan and Aviram express three grievances against Moses.  First, Moses has said repeatedly that God will give the Israelites the land of Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey”.1  But now they are stuck in the desert for forty years.  By comparison, Egypt was the land of milk and honey.

Second, they blame Moses for making the Israelites die in the wilderness.  In last week’s portion, Shelach-Lekha, God decreed that the Israelites must stay in the wilderness for 40 years, during which all the adults except the two scouts who urged the people to enter Canaan would die.2  But this decree was not Moses’ fault.  The Israelites refused to cross the border into Canaan, and God threatened to kill the whole community until Moses talked God into pardoning them and commuting their sentence.  All Moses did was buy them more time to live, and the promise that their children would conquer Canaan.

Third, the Reubenite leaders complain that Moses is hogging all the power and acting like a king, a complaint also lodged by Korach, the leader of 250 rebellious Levites.3  God responds by threatening to annihilate everyone except Moses and Aaron.  But Moses talks God into annihilating only the three rebels and their families.4

Moses tells the crowd to stand back from the tents of the rebels, and says:

The Death of Korach, Datan, and Abiram, by Gustave Dore

“By this you will know that God sent me to do all these things, that they are not from my heart: if these die like all humankind and the fate of all humankind is decreed for them, God did not send me.  But if God creates a new creation and the earth opens up its mouth and gulps them down, and all that is theirs, and they go alive down to Sheol, then you will know that these men scorned God.”  (Numbers 16:28-30)

The earth does open and swallow the three families.  This miracle proves that Moses tells them the law simply because God chooses him to do it.  God is the real king, and Moses is God’s spokesman.

Haftarat Korach

When Datan, Aviram, and Korach complain that Moses has too much power, he protests that he has not used his position for any personal gain.

“I have not taken a single donkey from them, and I have not wronged a single one of them.”  (Numbers 16:15)

The haftarah reading that accompanies Korach is 1 Samuel 11:14-12:22.  Probably the rabbis chose this passage because the prophet and judge Samuel also declares that he has not used his position for personal gain:

“Here I am!  Testify against me … Whose ox have I taken, and whose donkey have I taken?  And whom have I coerced?  Whom have I crushed?  And from the hand of whom have I taken a bribe and looked the other way?”  (1 Samuel 12:3)

Nobody, the Israelites reply.

It is a moment of transition.  Samuel has served his whole life as a circuit judge for the Israelites, but now, at the people’s request, he has just inaugurated Saul as their first king.  A king in the Ancient Near East was in charge of law, justice, and foreign affairs.  Although the Israelites have no complaints against Samuel as a judge, they want a king to lead them in war and foreign policy.

Samuel reminds them:

“And you saw that Nachash, king of the Ammonites, was coming against you, and you said to me: ‘No, because a king should rule over us!’  Yet God, your God, is your king.”  (1 Samuel 12:12)

In the book of Numbers, the rebel leaders do not want a king.  They complain that Moses is acting like their king, so Moses demonstrates that God is the king with the ultimate power, and he is only God’s emissary.  In the first book of Samuel, the Israelites are afraid that it is not enough to have the prophet Samuel as their judge, and God as their only king.  They want a human king.

Samuel says that it is their own fault that the kings of other countries make war on them, because they keep forgetting God and worshiping the Canaanite male and female gods (balim and ashtarot).5  So God lets their enemies attack them.  They beg God to rescue them, and God obliges by sending an ad-hoc general.6

Like Moses in the Torah portion Korach, Samuel demonstrates the truth of his words by asking God for a miracle, and God obliges—in Samuel’s case, by sending thunder and rain at the time of the wheat harvest, when the weather is always dry.7

Then the frightened Israelites say they were wrong to ask for a human king, and beg Samuel to intercede for them.  But Samuel assures them that as long as they (and their king) serve God instead of those worthless Canaanite gods, God will never abandon them.8

*

The Israelites do not trust God to be their king in either the time of Moses or the time of Samuel.  The difference is that in the time of Moses they do not want a king at all.  As long as they are stuck in the wilderness, they are isolated from other people and do not need anyone to deal with foreign powers.

In the time of Samuel, the Israelites inhabit part of Canaan, a land that is indeed flowing with milk and honey, not to mention wheat.  It is a fertile country worth conquering, and the neighboring kings are tempted to attack.  The Israelites do not trust God to send a war leader every time they need one, so they ask for their own human king.

Trusting God is hard for the Israelites, even though the stakes are high.  The bible asserts that if the people follow all of God’s laws (especially the one about not serving other gods), God will reward them with prosperity, their own land, and victory in battle.  If not, God will punish them with a plague or a military defeat.

But it is a rough justice.  The Israelites receive these rewards and punishments collectively, the innocent with the guilty.  And thanks to God’s hair-trigger temper, the punishments sometimes happen quickly.  In the portion Korach alone, God threatens to wipe out all the Israelites twice.9  The second time, God’s instant plague kills 14,700 people before Moses and Aaron stop it.  Only after that does God think of a non-lethal demonstration that convinces the surviving Israelites to accept Moses and Aaron as their divinely chosen leaders.10

What would it be like to have an invisible but easily inflamed king, one whom only Moses could mollify?  I suspect that I, too, would rather take my chances with no king at all in the wilderness, or with a human king in a fertile land.  If the human king turned out to be irrational, like King Saul, at least he would not live forever.

But the God-character in the Torah is eternal as well as irrational, often flying into a fury without thinking about the consequences.  No wonder the Israelites rebel against God.

  1. Moses used this expression to describe Canaan in Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, and 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; and Numbers 13:27 and 14:8. See my post: Ki Tavo: Milk and Honey.
  2. Numbers 14:11-24.
  3. Numbers 16:1-3.
  4. Numbers 16:20-27.  After that God’s fire burns up the 250 Levite rebels, and God sends a plague that kills thousands of Israelites who complained about it.
  5. 1 Samuel 12:9-10.
  6. In 1 Samuel 12:1, Samuel cites four ad-hoc generals sent by God: Yeruba-al (a.k.a. Gideon, Judges 6:11-17 and 7:1), Bedan (a.k.a. Samson according to the Talmud, Judges 13:24-16:31), Yiftach (Judges 11:1-33), and himself (though he never leads an army in the Torah).
  7. 1 Samuel 12:16-18.
  8. 1 Samuel 12:20-22.
  9. Numbers 16:21, 17:9.
  10. Numbers 17:13-26. God orders the head of each tribe to place his staff in front of the ark inside the Tent of Meeting.  In the morning, Aaron’s staff has sprouted leaves, flowers, and almonds.  The people are terrified, but at least they stop rebelling—until after Miriam dies and the water runs out in Numbers 20:2.

Shelach-Lekha: Paran vs. Chevron

June 2, 2021 at 10:18 pm | Posted in Joshua, Shelach-Lekha, Vayeira | Leave a comment

All the Israelites in the Torah are descended from one man, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel).  Jacob emigrates from Canaan to Egypt in the book of Genesis, but when he dies his sons bury him back in the family plot, and a memory of allegiance to Canaan is passed down through the generations for four hundred years.

When God liberates the “Children of Israel” from slavery in Egypt in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God promises to “give” them the land of Canaan.  They travel as far as Mount Sinai in Exodus, then continue north toward Canaan in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.

Route of Scouts

This week’s Torah portion in Numbers, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), opens when the Israelites and their fellow-travelers have crossed the Wilderness of Paran and camped at its northern edge, facing a range of hills on the southern border of Canaan.  The people are understandably nervous about marching in to conquer the inhabitants of Canaan.  So God calls for a scouting party.

Paran

Then God spoke to Moses, saying: “Send men for yourself, and they shall reconnoiter the land of Canaan ,which I am giving to the Israelites. You shall send one man from each tribe of his fathers, and every one a chieftain among them.”  And Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran according to the word of God, all of them heads of the Israelites.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:1-2)

Paran (פָּארָן) = a particular mountain in the northeastern Sinai Peninsula; an uninhabited area including that mountain.1

In the book of Numbers, Paran is a wilderness, a large desert with no settlements.  The Israelites cross it safely without encountering any other people.

In the book of Genesis, Paran is where Ishmael lives after his father, Abraham, has exiled him from the family camp at Beersheva.2

And God was with the young man, and he grew big, and he lived in the wilderness and he became a bowman.  And he lived in the Wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.  (Genesis 21:20-21)

Meanwhile Ishmael’s half-brother, Isaac, grows up in Abraham’s camp.  During his life he moves to three other locations, but he never leaves the region of Canaan.

At least one modern scholar has argued that Paran was inserted in the story of Ishmael by a redactor of Genesis in the 6th to 5th century B.C.E., a period when nomadic Arab warriors controlled commerce in the desert between Judah and Egypt.3

But the contrast Genesis sets up between the outsider Ishmael living in the Wilderness of Paran and the insider Isaac living in the civilized land of Canaan also informs the story of the scouting party in this week’s Torah portion.  The use of the place-name Paran reminds us that the Israelites are still outside their promised land, still nomads with no permanent home.

Chevron

Following God’s suggestion, Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land of Canaan, one for each tribe of Israelites.4

And they went up into the Negev and they came to Chevron, and there were … the Anakites.  (Numbers 13:22)

Chevron (חֶבְרוֹן) = the site of the modern West Bank city of Hebron.

When they return to the Israelite camp forty days later, ten of the twelve scouts report that Canaan is impossible to conquer, with its fortified cities and imposing warriors.

“All the people that we saw in it are men of unusual size.  And there we saw the Nefilim, descendants of Anak from the Nefilim!5  And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes!”  (Numbers 13:32-33)

The other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, declare that the Israelites can conquer Canaan because God will be on their side.  But the people despair and decide not to cross the border.  God does not give them another chance at the conquest of Canaan until they have been in the wilderness for forty years.  Then Moses’ successor, Joshua, leads the people across the Jordan River into northeastern Canaan.  Year by year, Joshua conquers the lands of petty kings and drives Anakites out of the hill-country6.  Caleb offers to conquer Chevron and dispossess the Anakites there.

Therefore Chevron became Caleb’s … because he remained loyal to God, the God of Israel.  And the name of Chevron was previously Kiryat Arba; the man was big among the Anakites … (Joshua 14:14-15)

Kiryat (קִרְיַת) = town of.

Arba (אָרְבַּע) = four.  (But Joshua 14:15 implies that Arba was also the name of a large or important Anakite.)

The book of Genesis also identifies Chevron with an earlier town called Kiryat Arba, but in Genesis the residents of the area are ordinary Hittites, not Anakites.  Adjacent to this town is the grove of Mamrei, where Abraham and Sarah are camping when three “men” who turn out to be angels visit and announce that Sarah will have a son at age 90.7  Abraham moves his household to Gerar and then Beersheba, but at some point Sarah returns to Mamrei without him.

And Sarah died at Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan …  (Genesis 23:2)

That is where Abraham buys the field containing the cave of Makhpeilah as a burial site.  Eventually he is buried in the cave next to his wife Sarah.  So is their son, Isaac, who moves there from Beersheba after he is old and blind.

And Jacob came to Isaac, his father, at Mamrei, Kiryat the Arba, which is Chevron; Abraham and Isaac had sojourned there.  (Genesis 35:28)

Isaac and his wife Rebecca are buried in the cave, Jacob buries his first wife, Leah, there, and in the last Torah portion of Genesis, Jacob’s twelve sons carry their father’s embalmed body back to Makhpeilah and bury him there.8

The graves of six key ancestors of the Israelites are in a cave near Chevron in Canaan.  This should make the city a magnet that draws the people home to where their forebears lived and died.  But in this week’s Torah portion in Numbers, the Israelites are overwhelmed by the fear of giants living there.

The use of the place-name Chevron emphasizes that the land the Israelites are refusing to enter is their own ancestral homeland, not just the land God promised to give them.  By turning away from Canaan, they are choosing to be permanent outsiders.

*

After murmuring about returning to Egypt, the Israelites choose to settle for several decades at the oasis of Kadesh-Barnea on the northern edge of the Wilderness of Paran.  In the Torah they make that choice because they do not trust God to grant them victory in the conquest of Canaan, not because they have any sympathy for the Canaanite tribes minding their own business in their own land.

But what if the land you think of as home is also the home of people who have been living there for hundreds of years?  Jews faced this question in 1948 when the present nation of Israel was founded.  The question still has not been answered.

  1. Mount Paran is cited as a place where God appears in Deuteronomy 33:2 and Habakkuk 3: 3. In an Islamic tradition, Paran (or Faran) is the desert extending down the east side of the Red Sea, and includes Mecca.
  2. Ishmael is Abraham’s son with an Egyptian slave named Hagar. After Abraham’s wife, Sarah, finally has her own son, Isaac, she insists that Abraham must drive out Hagar and Ishmael, so that Isaac will be the sole heir.  See my post Shavuot, Vayeira, & Ruth: Whatever You Say.
  3. Yairah Amit, “Ishmael, King of the Arabs”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/ishmael-king-of-the-arabs
  4. The scouts and their tribes are listed in Numbers 13:4-15. In this list the twelve tribes bear the names of ten of the twelve sons of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) in the book of Genesis.  Levi is omitted, since Moses has designated that tribe for religious work.  And instead of a single tribe named after Jacob’s son Joseph, we get tribes named after Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Efrayim.  They become legitimate founders of tribes in Genesis 48:5-22, when Jacob adopts them.
  5. The Nefilim are demi-gods mentioned in Genesis 6:4.
  6. Joshua 11:21. Also see Judges 1:19-20;
  7. Genesis 18:1-15.
  8. Genesis 35:27-29, 49:29-32, and 50:13.

Beha-alotkha: Miriam Looks Back

May 24, 2021 at 7:18 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha | Leave a comment

(I am writing a Torah monologue from the viewpoint of Reuben for my book on Genesis.  As Jacob’s firstborn son, he keeps trying to do the right thing and manage his eleven brothers, but he keeps getting it wrong.

So for this week’s Torah portion in the book of Numbers, Beha-alotkha, I am sharing a Torah monologue I wrote back in 2008 from the viewpoint Miriam as she tries to figure out what she did wrong.)

Miriam Looks Back (Beha-alotekha)

My God, my God, why did you do this to me?  One moment I’m Miriam the Prophetess—old, healthy, strong, respected, looked up to.  The next moment—I’m an abomination, afflicted with tzara’at, shedding scales like drifts of sand.  Unclean, unclean! —shamed and shunned, seven days outside the camp.  And I’ve only been here for one day.  I’ve got six more days to get through.

Why did you do this to me, God?  The itching is unbearable!  No, I take that back.  The itching is a temporary inconvenience, but it’s all part of God’s plan, and I accept it humbly.

Rrrr!  Look at me now!  Scaly as a snake, white as—salt.  Reminds me of Lot’s wife, when she looked back at Sodom burning, and she turned into a pillar of salt.

Because she looked back—

But I never look back.  I always look forward, because I have faith in you, God.  Whenever the men whine about the cucumbers, melons,  leeks, onions, and garlic they used to eat in Egypt, what do I do?  I invent another recipe for manna.

Women Dancing, by J.J.J. Tissot

And when we left Egypt, grabbing whatever we could, I packed my timbrel.  Because I knew we’d have a reason to celebrate.  Even when the Pharaoh’s chariots came after us, I knew sooner or later we’d be singing and dancing and praising you, God.

I bet you didn’t expect an old lady to dance like that, did you?

Hey, I was forward-looking even when I was young, before Moshe was born.  Remember when Pharaoh ordered the Egyptians to drown every Hebrew baby boy?  How my father, Amram, told the other Hebrew men to separate from their wives?  He said, it’s better not to make a baby at all, than to see him drowned in the Nile.

But I said, what about the girl babies?  I said, I had a vision about a boy who escaped.  I said, someday God’s gonna hear our groaning and rescue us.  I said, in the meantime, let’s grab as much life as we can, even under the shadow of death.  I said, I’m going ahead with my wedding, and you should tell all the married men to go back to their wives’ beds, and bring some light into the night!

And my father did just what I said.  Turned out well, didn’t it?

But now, when I try to give my little brother Moshe some advice, hhhh!  God strikes me with tzara’at, and I’m shedding scales all over the place, and everyone turns away from me because I’m unclean, and here I am stuck outside the camp, waiting out my sentence, seven days of shunning, and why did you do this to me, God?

But I’m not complaining.  I have a good attitude.  I know this is all for the best.  Somehow.

*

One, two, three …  Day four.  I’m halfway through my seven days outside the camp.  Halfway through this long, long week.  But I’m not complaining!

Though I still don’t know why I’m being punished for giving my brother some advice.  Listen, I know Moshe is way above my level.  I mean, the man has to wear a veil over his face!  Because he’s been exposed to so much of Your divine light, that his own face glows.  Me, I’ve just got a regular old woman’s face.  Or I used to, before You crusted it over with these white scales.

But just because You turned my little brother into the prophet of all prophets, am I supposed to treat him like a king?  Like a god?  Is that why You punished me for criticizing him on account of the Cushite woman he married?

All I did was point out that just because he talks with God all the time, it doesn’t mean he can’t go to bed with his wife once in a while.  The poor thing is shriveling up from lack of affection.  My God, you give us life, you give us desire, you give us joy like fire when two people come together.  Is it right to reject Your gifts?  Is it right for Moshe to turn away from his wife?  Isn’t that turning away from life?

So I told Moshe he should go back to her bed, just like my father and the other men of Israel went back to their wives in Egypt.  But I couldn’t tell if I was getting through to him; it’s hard to read his expression, through that veil.  And Aharon the Eloquent just stood there like a dummy.  So I kept talking.  I told Moshe, look at me and Aharon, we’re prophets, too.  But Aharon still gives Elisheva a kiss whenever he steps into their tent.  And me, I was good to my own man, right up to the day he died.

Was it so awful to say that we’re prophets, too?  We are.  You do speak to us.  You spoke to us right then, telling us to report to the Tent of Meeting.  And when we got there, we heard your voice again, from the pillar of cloud, and you said plenty.  All three of us heard you.  And then hhhh!  I’m covered with tzara’at.  Skin like scales.  Like salt.  Like death.  Me, not Aharon.  Why me?  Because I was doing the talking?

You know, God, you always did let Aharon off the hook.  Like when he made the golden calf.  You hold me to a higher standard.  Maybe it’s a compliment.  Maybe this scaly skin is actually a sign of your favor.  I just need to look at it the right way.

But I have to confess, my good attitude has been slipping, these past four days outside the camp.  I guess it’s easier to keep smiling when I have people to smile at.  Now that I’m alone, I—I’m starting to lose faith that you make everything work out for the best.

But I know it’s just a passing weakness.  I never really break down.  I can get through all seven days of tzara’at with my chin up.

*

I still can’t get used to this itching!  But this is the seventh day.  I just have to stick it out until sunset, and then it will be over.

I’ve got to remember to thank Moshe for begging God to heal me.  If it weren’t for him, I’d be stuck like this for the rest of my life.  Not just itching, but shamed and shunned.  Thanks to Moshe, I can come back into the camp tonight, and be myself again.

But it won’t be the same, will it?  Everyone will remember what you did to me, God.  When I walked out of the camp seven days ago, nobody would meet my eyes.  When I come back—I bet they won’t look at me the way they used to.

Could be worse.  At least I won’t have to wear a veil, like Moshe.  Only time I ever wore a veil was for my wedding.  I remember the moment when my husband lifted the veil and kissed me.

Now Moshe, he only takes off his veil to talk to God, or to tell the people what God said.  Nobody’s going to argue with a man when his face is glowing like the sun.

It’s hard to look at.  Most people take one glance at his face, then look off to the side until he’s done talking.  You can see everyone relax when he puts the veil back on.  It’s a kindness he does, covering his face so he won’t frighten anyone.

I suppose if he wanted to kiss his wife, he’d have to kiss her through the veil.  Not so easy.  And their eyes can’t meet, not really.  But if he took off his veil, she couldn’t bear to look at him at all.

I never thought of that before.  Since Moshe speaks face to face with you, God, that means he can’t speak face to face with anyone else.  Not even his wife.  Nobody ever looks him in the face.

I wonder if he feels like he’s being shunned.

I got seven days of shunning.  Moshe gets a lifetime sentence.  Poor man.  Maybe that’s why he’s so humble.

Maybe I was wrong to criticize him for being a bad husband.  His life is a lot harder than I realized.  I wonder if he ever looks back on the old days in Midian, where he was just a shepherd and a family man.  I wouldn’t blame him.

Actually, I can’t blame Lot’s wife for looking back at Sodom.  What good was it to escape, when her older daughters were dying in the fire?  Hey, maybe I shouldn’t even blame the children of Israel for looking back on our life in Egypt as if it were a good thing.  At least in Egypt there was always garlic.

To think I’ve been proud of not looking back!  How did I get to be such an old woman without ever turning my head around?

You know, even after my husband died, I didn’t let myself look back and long for him.  I thought I was so important, Miriam the Prophetess, I had to set an example.  I had to keep my chin up and my face toward the Promised Land every day, every moment.  I thought I was so righteous, I could tell everyone else how to behave, too.

Hah!  What a stiff-necked Jew I’ve been.

Blessed are you, my God, who blessed me with seven days to look back.

(by Melissa Carpenter)

Naso, Lekh-Lekha, & Vayeira: No Jealousy

May 21, 2021 at 11:02 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Naso, Vayeira | Leave a comment

Marriage as always been a strange institution.

The default marriage in the west today is an exclusive covenant between two people who care for one another and restrict their sexual activity to one another. This arrangement is feasible and rewarding for many couples, but not for everyone. So some people try polyamory or “open marriage”, some cheat on their covenant by secretly having sex with others, and some opt for divorce.

The default marriage in the Torah is a different kind of contract. A man with sufficient wealth can take multiple wives, concubines, and female slaves. Another option is to pay prostitutes.  A woman who is not a prostitute is expected to restrict her sexual activity to the man who owns her.  A girl or unmarried women is supposed to remain a virgin and live with her father until he either sells her as a slave,1 or accepts a bride-price for her.

Elkanah and His Wives, from musicformass.blog

In this unequal kind of marriage, one wife might feel jealous of her husband’s other wife because she has some advantage: more children, or more affection from their husband. 2  But a wife does not complain that her husband is unfaithful to her when he takes another woman.

A husband, however, considers it a serious breach of contract if one of his wives has sex with another man.  In the Torah, if a married woman is witnessed committing adultery, both she and her lover get the death penalty.3  A man expects exclusive possession of any woman he purchases, as a wife or as a slave.  If he merely suspects his wife has been unfaithful, but there are no witnesses to prove it, he can divorce her; a man can divorce a wife for any reason.4

What if she has been in an apparently compromising position, but there are no witnesses, and he does not want to divorce her?  The question arises both in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift it”) in the book of Numbers, and in the book I am writing on moral psychology in the book of Genesis.

Naso in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar

A spirit of kinah passes over him and he is kinei of his wife and she defiled herself, or a spirit of kinah passes over him and he is kinei of his wife and she did not defile herself.  Then the man shall bring his wife to the priest, and he shall bring an offering over her, one-tenth of an eifah of barley flour.  He shall not pour oil over it and he shall not place frankincense on it, because it is a grain-offering of kena-ot, a grain-offering of an acknowledging reminder of a bad deed.   (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:14-15)

kinah (קִנְאָה) = jealousy, envy; passion, fury, zeal.5  (Plural: kena-ot, קְנָאֺת.  In all cases kinah is a powerful feeling that may overwhelm reason.)

kinei (קִנֵּא) = he is jealous, envious, zealous.

Ceremony of the Suspected Adulteress, by Matthijs Pool, 1686-1727

The priest pronounces a curse on the woman, asking God to inflict a particular physical calamity on her if she did lie down with a man other than her husband.  (Biblical scholars do not agree on the exact nature of the calamity, which involves her belly and her crotch; it may be a miscarriage.)  The woman must say “Amen, amen!”  The priest writes down the curse, then rubs the lettering off into water mixed with dirt from the floor of the sanctuary and makes the woman drink it then and there.

After this impressive ordeal, the verdict is up to God.

When he has made her drink the water, it happens: if she defiled herself and she was unfaithful with unfaithfulness to her man, then the water will enter her, inflicting a curse for bitterness, and her belly will swell and her crotch will fall, and the woman will become am object of cursing among her people.  But if the woman has not defiled herself and she is pure, she is cleared and she will bear seed.  (Numbers 5:27-28)

Her husband no longer has any reason for jealousy, and becomes able to trust his wife again.  The rest of the community also accepts that she is innocent.

Vayeira in the book of Genesis/Bereishit

In the book of Genesis, Abraham puts his wife, Sarah, in a compromising position twice by telling a king that she is his sister, accepting the king’s bride-price, and cheerfully sending her off to the king’s harem.  Is he incapable of jealousy?

On the first occasion, in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha, Abraham, Sarah, and the rest of his household travel to Egypt to escape a famine.  Abraham asks his wife to lie when they reach the border of Egypt.

“Hey, please, I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.  And if the Egyptians see you and say, ‘This is his wife’, then they will kill me and let you live.  Say, please, you are my sister, so that it will be good for me because of you, and I will remain alive on account of you.”   (Genesis 12:11-13)

Abraham’s extraordinary request assumes that Egyptians abhor adultery, but have no qualms about killing a man in order to marry his wife.  The pharaoh himself makes Sarah his concubine and pays Abraham a lavish bride-price.  Then God afflicts the pharaoh and his household with a disease.  The pharaoh scolds Abraham and has him and Sarah escorted out of Egypt, but they get to keep the bride-price.

Avimelekh Returns Sarah to Abraham, by Elias_van_Nijmegen (1667-1755)

So Abraham tries it again with King Avimelekh of Gerar in the Torah portion Vayeira.  This time God speaks to the king in a dream after he has paid the bride-price and welcomed Sarah into his house.  God threatens to kill Avimelekh, who protests his innocence due to ignorance.

And God said to him in the dream: “Also I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and I, even I, restrained you from erring against me.  Therefore I did not let you touch her.  And now, restore the man’s wife.  Since he is a prophet, he will pray for your benefit and life.”  (Genesis 20:6-7)

The early commentary assumes that the king of Gerar also executes husbands in order to marry their wives, so Abraham’s deception is once again justified.   Furthermore, since God calls Abraham a prophet, both the Talmud and Bereishit Rabbah conclude that Abraham knows ahead of time that God will protect Sarah.6   Therefore he is not guilty of pimping his wife.

I disagree.  After traveling toward Egypt for weeks, does Abraham suddenly remember the bizarre ethics of Egyptians?   It is more likely that he gets a brilliant idea for acquiring a lot more wealth in livestock and slaves—if his scam comes off.  That would also explain why he does not return the bride-price after the pharaoh discovers his scam.

He destroys his wife’s honor by putting her in a position where she, too, is exposed as a liar, and where she stays in Pharaoh’s harem long enough for her chastity to be in question.  He is careless about her reputation and does not even consider her self-esteem.

Years later, Abraham uses the same scam to swindle Avimelekh of Gerar—apparently for no reason except that he can get away with it and make a profit.  No sense of honor stops him, nor does any consideration for either his wife or the afflicted king.

Abraham is an amusing trickster, and nobody is killed on his account.   He happily prays for healing for Avimelekh—once he has received the king’s gifts.   But he fails to meet his moral obligations either to his wife or to the kings of the countries where he is a guest.

Abraham does, in effect, pimp his wife.  Why does he feel no jealousy?  If marrying the two kings were Sarah’s idea, then he might be granting her the freedom he enjoys as a man.  But Abraham, not Sarah, is the one who initiates the scam both times.

If he knows ahead of time that God will prevent both kings from touching Sarah, then he is spared from jealousy over his property, i.e. his wife.

Or perhaps Abraham does not really care what happens to Sarah.  The Torah says Isaac loves his wife, Rebecca,7 and Jacob loves one of his wives, Rachel,8 but it does not say Abraham loves any of the three women he has children with.9

There is more than one way to avoid jealousy in a marriage.

  1. In Exodus 21:7-11, sexual duties are part of the job description of a daughter sold as a slave.
  2. For example, in Genesis 29:31-30:24, Leah envies Rachel because their mutual husband, Jacob, loves Rachel more. Rachel envies Leah because Leah regularly bears Jacob children. In 1 Samuel 1:1-8, Hannah is jealous of her husband Elkanah’s other wife, Peninah, because Peninah has children.2
  3. Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22. The Talmud later added so many extra requirements for conviction of adultery that the death penalty was no longer practiced. A man is free to have sexual intercourse with an unbetrothed virgin as long as he then pays her father a bride-price and marries her (Deuteronomy 22:28).
  4. Deuteronomy 24:1.
  5. Kinah for God is usually translated as “zeal”, and kinah of one human over another human is usually translated as “jealousy”. God’s kinah regarding humans is often translated as “fury”, though Isaiah and Zecharaiah refer to God’s kinah meaning God’s zeal to ensure a good future for the Israelites (Isaiah 9:6, 11:11, 37:32; Zechariah 1:14, 8:2).
  6. Talmud Makkot 9b, Bereishit Rabbah.
  7. When God tells him to obey Sarah and send away Hagar and her son Ishmael, he is only troubled about Ishmael (Genesis 21:9-12).
  8. Genesis 24:67.
  9. Genesis 29:18.
  10. Sarah (Genesis 21:2), Hagar (Genesis 16:15), and Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2).

Shavuot, Vayeira & Ruth: Whatever You Say

May 15, 2021 at 10:16 pm | Posted in Ruth, Shavuot, Vayeira | 1 Comment

Barley sheaf

At first Shavuot (שָׁבֻעֹת = weeks) marked the end of the seven-week barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest.1 Then it became one of the three annual pilgrimage-festivals in Jerusalem, the day to bring gifts of first fruits to the temple, and it came on fiftieth day after Passover/Pesach.2 After the fall of the second temple, the rabbis decided that day was the anniversary of God’s revelation and transmission of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

This year Shavuot begins at sunset on Sunday, May 16. Some Jews will stay up all night studying Torah—including the book of Ruth,3 which touches on both the barley harvest and the acceptance of the Torah.  The celebration at the end of the barley harvest is the night when Ruth risks everything.4 She also embraces the religion transmitted at Mount Sinai; she leaves her own land, Moab, to follow her mother-in-law Naomi, saying:

from The Story of Ruth, Thomas Matthews Rooke, 1876

“Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; your people will be my people; and your god will be my god.” (Ruth 1:16)

Although Naomi discourages her, and the Israelites do not welcome her at first, Ruth’s embrace of her new life is as wholehearted as her attachment to Naomi.

During the barley harvest, she feeds herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning in the field of kind landowner named Boaz.  Naomi identifies Boaz as a potential “redeemer”, a male relative who can fulfill two duties for a widow: buying back her deceased husband’s land, and giving her a son in her deceased husband’s name, thereby giving her a place in his family.5

But although Boaz is generous toward Ruth in the barley field, it does not occur to him that he could do more for her and his kinswoman Naomi. He may be holding back because he expects Ruth to marry one of the younger men in the town; later in the story, he praises her for not going after them.6

Ruth at Boaz’s Feet (a polite version), William deBrailes, ca. 1250

So when the barley harvest ends, Naomi comes up with an audacious scheme. She tells Ruth to hide near the threshing floor and wait until Boaz has feasted, drunk, and dozed off.

“Then go over and uncover his ‘feet’ and lie down. And he himself will tell you what to do.” And [Ruth] said to her: “Kol that you say to me I will do.” (Ruth 3:4-5)

kol (כֹּל) = all, everything, whatever, anything.

Ruth is risking her whole future on Naomi’s desperate plan. Boaz could treat her as a prostitute rather than an honorable woman. Or he might cry out in surprise when he wakes up and finds her, and then the other men sleeping on the threshing floor would awaken and discover her in a compromising position.

But Ruth has attached herself to Naomi so completely that she does exactly what her mother-in-law says—and more. When Boaz wakes at midnight, startled, he asks (presumably in a whisper) “Who are you?”

And she said: “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wing over your servant, because you are a redeemer.” (Ruth 3:10)

Now she is telling Boaz what to do. He is rich and powerful in his community; she is an impoverished foreigner, dependent on his good will. But she does everything she can to carry out Naomi’s plan successfully.

Ruth courageously follows all of Naomi’s instructions and more because she has committed herself completely to her mother-in-law.

*

Back in the book of Genesis, Abraham is not nearly as committed to his wife, Sarah.  When she tells him to have a child with her slave-woman, Hagar, he goes along with her request, but disregards the reason she gives.

And Sarah said to Abraham: “Hey, please, God has kept me from bearing a child. Please come into my slave-woman; perhaps I will be built up through her.” And Abraham heeded Sarah’s voice. (Genesis 16:2)

Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham, by Matthias Stomer, 17th century

Sarah politely informs him that she wants a child, even if she must adopt the child of her husband and her slave, Hagar. Abraham heeds her request long enough to get Hagar pregnant, but by the time Sarah complains that Hagar is belittling her, he has lost interest. Instead of intervening to put Sarah’s adoption plan back on track, he merely says:

“Hey, your slave-woman is in your hand. Do to her what is good in your eyes.” (Genesis 16:6)

Sarah abuses Hagar, and Hagar runs away and has a conversation with God. Although she returns to Abraham’s camp, her newborn baby is not placed in Sarah’s lap to signify adoption.7 The boy is named Ishmael—not by Sarah, but by God and then Abraham.

Abraham loves his son.8 But when Ishmael is an adolescent Sarah gives birth to her own son, Isaac. She tells her husband to cast out Ishmael, along with Hagar.

The thing was very bad in Abraham’s eyes, on account of his son. And God said to Abraham: “Don’t let it be bad in your eyes concerning the young man or concerning your slave-woman.  Kol that Sarah says to you, heed her voice, because through Yitzchak descendants will be called by your [name]. And also the son of the slave-woman I will make a nation [out of him], since he is your seed.” (Genesis 21:11-13)

Only when God tells him to do whatever Sarah says does Abraham send away Ishmael and his mother.

And Abraham got up early in the morning, and he took bread and a skin of water and he gave them to Hagar, placed them on her shoulder and the boy[’s], and he sent her away … (Genesis 21:14)

Abraham is a rich man; he could easily afford to give Hagar and Ishmael a donkey or two loaded with provisions and trade goods. And for all he knows, Sarah would not object; she says she does not want Ishmael to inherit Abraham’s estate, but she does not say anything about parting gifts.

Yet Abraham sends off his older son and his concubine with only bread and a single skin of water. They get lost in the desert, the water runs out, and Ishmael is about to die of dehydration when God sends an angel to intervene.9

Abraham can safely assume Ishmael will live long enough to have at least one son, since God promises to “make a nation” out of him. But even if he is not risking Ishmael’s life, Abraham is still responsible for making Ishmael and his mother suffer from thirst and agony in the desert. His neglect is unnecessary and unethical.

Why is he so mean? Abraham is not wholehearted about either Ishmael or Sarah. He obeys God by doing what Sarah says, but he does it grudgingly and badly. Perhaps he closes his heart in order to obey Sarah, and then his heart remains closed. He no longer wants to love Ishmael.

*

Ruth, on the other hand, is so wholehearted in her attachment to Naomi that her heart is open to Boaz as well.

Naomi introduced her threshing floor scheme by saying:

“My daughter, should I not seek for you a tranquil place where it will be good for you?” (Ruth 3:1)

She wants Ruth to have a better life. But Ruth knows that Boaz is kind-hearted enough so that if he redeems her and gives her a tranquil place in his home, he will not leave Naomi out in the cold. For Naomi’s sake, Ruth makes what amounts to an offer of marriage to Boaz.

When she reminds him that he is a potential redeemer, Boaz says:

“And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. Kol that you say to me I will do for you.” (Ruth 3:11)

Like Ruth, Boaz does exactly what he is told, and more. He helps her sneak away from the threshing floor before dawn, and sends her back to Naomi with a gift of threshed barley. In the morning, in order to make sure nobody can question his acting as the redeemer, Boaz sits with the other elders in the city gate and hails the only relative of Naomi’s who is closer to her on the family tree. The other elders serve as witnesses that the other man refuses to be the redeemer, and that Boaz is now acquiring the land and Ruth.

Boaz opens his heart to Ruth and Naomi, and takes extra steps to make sure his marriage to Ruth is legal and recognized by the whole community, even though she is a Moabite. The book ends with Boaz and Ruth’s newborn son sitting on Naomi’s lap. Naomi has become his adoptive mother, the role Sarah wanted but never got.

In the book of Genesis, Abraham’s half-hearted compliance with Sarah’s requests signals his shrinking love for both Sarah and Ishmael, and foreshadows his willingness to sacrifice Isaac without a protest.10 In the book of Ruth, Ruth does everything Naomi says and more, while Boaz does everything Ruth says and more. The result is a tranquil household in which all three adults are loving and generous.

May we all learn to be as open-hearted as Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz became.

  1. For seven weeks after Passover we count the omer (עֺמֶר), a measure of barley. Click here to see my post: Omer: Counting 49.
  2. Numbers 28:26-31 (the maftir reading for both days of Shavuot) and Deuteronomy 16:9-12, 16:16-17 (part of the Torah reading for the second day of Shavuot).
  3. The rabbis of the first millennium C.E. assigned a biblical book to reach on each of the pilgrimage-festivals: The Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, and Ecclesiastes on Sukkot.
  4. Ruth 3:1-18.
  5. For more on the role of a redeemer, see Deuteronomy 25:5-6 and Genesis 38:6-26, or my post Yitro & Vayeishev: Fathers-in-Law.
  6. Ruth 3:10.
  7. The adoptive parent holds the infant on his or her knees as part of the adoption ritual in Genesis 30:3-13 and Genesis 48:5 and 48:12.
  8. Genesis 17:18-21.
  9. Genesis 21:14-17.
  10. Genesis 22:1-13.

 

Behar & Jeremiah: When Someone Needs Help

May 6, 2021 at 5:07 pm | Posted in Behar, Jeremiah | Leave a comment

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra is packed with laws for ethical human interactions, as well as rules for religious rituals.  This week Jews read a double Torah portion in Leviticus, Behar and BechukotaiBehar introduces the idea of the yoveil (“jubilee”) every 50 years, when every plot of land in the future kingdom of Israel returns to the family that originally owned it, and every Hebrew slave goes free.1  The reason given is that the real owner of all the land, and the real owner of all Israelite slaves, is God.2  Periodically things must be restored to the way God set them up.

For Israelites who have fallen into debt, the yoveil year is the last resort.  Obviously people who had to sell their land, or themselves, benefit from a clean slate every 50 years.  But the Torah portion also provides instructions for wealthier relatives to “redeem” the land or the slave by serving as the buyer.  If they cannot afford it at the time, they buy the property or person from the first buyer as soon as possible.

The redeemer gets to own the property or person until the yoveil year, but he must treat them well.3

And if your brother under you is [further] impoverished and sells himself to you, do not work him with the work of a slave.  Like a hired or live-in laborer he shall be to you, until the year of the yoveil.  (Leviticus 25:39-40)

In this context, “brother” means any male kinsman.

Similarly, the rules about redeeming a poor kinsman’s property are not just about keeping land in the extended family consisting of descendants of the family that was originally allocated the land in the time of Joshua.

If your kinsman becomes impoverished and must sell part of his property, then his nearest go-eil shall come and ga-al what his kinsman is selling. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:25)

go-eil (גֹּאֵל) = redeemer; deliverer.

ga-al (גָּאַל) = redeem; prevent purchase by an outsider, buy back from an outsider.

The impoverished man’s nearest go-eil is his closest relative who can afford to buy or buy back, the land.  The go-eil can keep the property and use it himself until the next yoveil year, when all lands will return to the descendants of their original owners.  But he cannot kick his poor relative off the land; the poor man and his family continue to live on the property and become tenant farmers for the new owner.

And if your brother is impoverished and comes under your hand, and you take hold of him [as if he were] at resident alien, then he must thrive with you.  Do not take interest or extra charges from him.  (Leviticus 25:35-36)

The haftarah reading from Jeremiah that accompanies the Torah portion Behar demonstrates that the law for redeeming land also requires the go-eil to look out for the kinsman whose land he has purchased.

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch in prison, by Gustave Dore, 19th cent. CE

In the haftarah, King Zedekiah of Judah has thrown the prophet Jeremiah in prison because he kept declaring that the king should surrender before Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar’s troops.  While Jeremiah is in prison, God tells him:

Hey! Chanameil, son of your uncle Shulam, will come to you saying: Buy yourself my field that is in Anatot, because yours is the duty of the ge-ulah to buy it. (Jeremiah 32:7)

ge-ulah (גְּאֻלָּה) = right of redemption; responsibility to redeem. (From the same root as ga-al.)

Sure enough, Jeremiah’s cousin Chanameil does visit him in prison with the news that he is in debt and has to sell the farm.  He is offering the land to Jeremiah first, as the law of ge-ulah requires.  Jeremiah pays his cousin in silver, solving Chanameil’s immediate problem.  He is meticulous about following his country’s legal procedures, even though he knows the whole country will eventually fall to the Babylonian army.4

A few chapters later in the book of Jeremiah, the Babylonian army temporarily lifts the siege of Jerusalem.

And it happened that the Babylonians removed the front-line troops from around Jerusalem, on account of the advancing troops of Pharaoh.  Jeremiah was leaving Jerusalem to go to the territory of Benjamin there lachalik among the people.  And he was at the gate of Benjamin, and there the commander of the guard …arrested Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “You are defecting to the Babylonians!” (Jeremiah 37:11-13)

lachalik (לַחֲלִק) = to participate in the division or distribution of property.

There is no consensus among translators about what lachalik means in this context.5  What other reason would Jeremiah have to leave the shelter of the city, when he knows the Babylonian army will return, except to defect?  One answer is that he is concerned about the land he bought from his cousin in Anatot.  He wants to make sure the sale of his cousin’s land was carried out according to the documents he had prepared.

Jeremiah is not concerned about his ownership of the property, since God has told him the Babylonians will win and everyone will be dispossessed.  He probably wants to check up on his cousin Chanameil and make sure no outsider has kicked him off the land that he is now, technically, farming for Jeremiah.  Until the kingdom of Judah finally falls to the Babylonians, Chanameil needs to farm that land to support himself and his family.

I believe Jeremiah is acting in the spirit, not just the letter, of the law in the Torah portion Behar.  He is his cousin’s go-eil, and as long as possible he will strive to redeem him from poverty.  It is bad luck that he is intercepted at the city gate and thrown into prison, so he cannot carry out his intention.  (You can read more about this haftarah by clicking on this link to my post: Haftarat Behar—Jeremiah: The Redeemer.)

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks in the book of Genesis.6  Jeremiah’s actions say yes, as his cousin’s go-eil he is also his cousin’s keeper.  Even after he has redeemed Chanameil’s land, Jeremiah tries to continue to look out for him.

*

The Torah portion Behar sanctions, indeed requires, helping an impoverished member of one’s extended family in a way that also benefits the one who does the good deed.  Today we can write a check to a program for reducing poverty and write it off on our taxes, or do a kindness to a member of our family or community that also burnishes our own reputation.  But I believe we should not stop there.  Like Jeremiah, we should follow up on the results of our action, as long as we are able.

Ethical behavior is not an abstraction or a punch list.  Let’s make it personal.

  1. Leviticus 25:8-16, 25:39-54.
  2. Leviticus 25:23-24, 25:55.
  3. In the world addressed by the Torah, men own all the wealth and women are treated as the property of their husbands, fathers, or masters.
  4. Jeremiah 32:9-14.
  5. Robert Alter even suggests lachalik means “to hide” here, based on an Akkadian cognate, although the word appears to be a hifil form of the kal verb chalak (חָלַק) = divided up, allotted shares. (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Volume 2: Prophets, W. Norton & Co., 2019, p. 983)
  6. Genesis 4:9.

 

Emor, Chayyei Sarah, & Toledot: Intermarriage

April 28, 2021 at 10:25 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah, Emor, Toledot | Leave a comment

The geir who resides among you shall be like the native-born among you, and you must love him like yourself, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:34)

geir (גֵר) = immigrant, resident alien.  (Plural = geirim, גֵרִים.)

Boaz and Ruth (a geir), by E.C.F. Holbein, 1830

We must love our neighbors like ourselves not only when they are from our own people, but also when they are immigrants, strangers from another land; God says so in last week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim.1

Native-born citizens are sometimes prejudiced against immigrants, in the Torah as well as in the world today.  This week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), ends with the case of a blasphemer.  The writer of this section mentions that the blasphemer is an outsider, the child of an intermarriage.

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the Israelites, and the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man quarreled in the camp. (Leviticus 24:10)2

For the rest of the story multiethnic man is called “the son of the Israelite woman”, reminding the reader that his father is not an Israelite and implying that he therefore has a lower status.  The other man is called simply “the Israelite”.

And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed, and he treated the name of God with contempt.  And they brought him to Moses …  (Leviticus 24:11)

Moses waits for God to tell him the penalty, and God says the blasphemer should be stoned:

The Blasphemer Stoned, from Figures de la Bible, 1728

“And speak to the Israelites, saying: Anyone who treats his God with contempt must carry his guilt.  And whoever blasphemes against the name of God must certainly be put to death.  The whole assembly must definitely stone him, whether geir or native-born; for his blaspheming the name, he must be put to death.  (Leviticus 24:15-16)

Despite the writer’s bias against the blasphemer’s mixed parentage, God clarifies that the death penalty applies to anyone who desecrates God’s name, immigrant or native.  God generalizes:

“One law must be for all of you, whether geir or native-born, because I, God, am your God.”  (Leviticus 24:22)

*

As I draft the conclusion of my book on moral psychology in Genesis, I am noticing how the book of Genesis addresses intermarriage.  Abraham makes his steward swear:

“… that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I am living.  Instead, you must go to my land and my homeland, and [there] you will take a wife for my son, for Isaac.”  (Genesis 24:3-4)

He is probably discriminating against the Canaanites because of their religion.  The Arameans in Abraham’s hometown of Charan may well worship more than one god, but at least they recognize a god with the same four-letter personal name as Abraham’s God.3

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

Abraham’s steward brings a bride back from Charan: Rebecca, Abraham’s grandniece; and Abraham’s son Isaac marries her.

Isaac and Rebecca want brides from Charan for their sons, too, but their firstborn son, Esau, disappoints them.

And Esau was forty years old, and he took as a wife Yehudit, daughter of Beiri the Hittite, and Basmat, daughter of Eylon the Hittite.  And they made the spirits of Isaac and Rebecca bitter.  (Genesis 26:34)

After the tension between Esau and his brother Jacob has escalated until Esau is contemplating fratricide, Rebecca tells Isaac:

“I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women.  If Jacob takes a wife from the Hittite women like these, why should I go on living?”  (Genesis 27.46)

Isaac gets the hint.  He summons Jacob and says:

“You must not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan.  Get up, go to Padan of Aram4 to the house of Betu-eil, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.”  (Genesis 28:1-2)

Jacob leaves at once for Charan, fleeing from his angry brother Esau.  He marries both of Lavan’s daughters, and he takes their maidservants (who presumably share the family’s religion) as concubines.  Yet he shows no concern over the religious affiliations of the women that his own twelve sons marry.

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt

On his deathbed Jacob adopts two of his many grandsons so they will inherit equal shares with his sons.  These two are Menasheh and Efrayim, the children of Jacob’s son Joseph and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asnat.  Menasheh and Efrayim, like the blasphemer in the Torah portion Emor, are half Israelite and half Egyptian.  But like God, Jacob does not discriminate against them.  He is not even concerned that their mother will alienate them from his and Joseph’s religion, though Asnat is the daughter of an Egyptian priest of On! 5

In fact, Jacob concludes the adoption ritual by declaring:

“Through you Israel will give blessings, saying: My God place you like Efrayim and Menasheh.”  (Genesis 48:20)

This sentence is commonly interpreted as referring to the amity between the two brothers, and later their eponymous tribes, despite the placement of Efrayim (the younger brother) as the dominant one—both in Jacob’s adoption ritual and in the politics of the tribes of the Kingdom of Israel.  But it could also mean that both sons and both tribes were a blessing for the Israelites, despite their mixed Israelite and Egyptian heritage.

May we all judge people by their deeds rather than their origins.  And may we all recognize the blessings that come to us from immigrants and from the children of multiethnic couples.

  1. You must not take vengeance nor bear a grudge against the children of your people; you must love your neighbor like yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
  2. For more on the possible cause of the quarrel, see my post Emor: Blasphemy.
  3. Genesis 24:50-51.
  4. “Paddan of Aram” is a name for the region of Mesopotamia that includes Charan.
  5. Genesis 41:45.

Acharey Mot, Kedoshim, & Vayeira: Incest

April 22, 2021 at 11:20 am | Posted in Acharey Mot, Kedoshim, Vayeira | Leave a comment

Taboos against incest exist in all cultures; what varies is which relationships are considered incestuous. This week’s double Torah portion, Acharey Mot and Kedoshim, includes two overlapping lists of family members who are forbidden as sexual partners. Yet father-daughter sex is not mentioned.

Both lists are addressed to men. The first begins:

Any man may not approach any flesh of his flesh to uncover nakedness.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:6)

Both lists are about incest between men and females; homosexual incest is not considered, perhaps because both Torah portions also forbids lying down with a man “like lying down with a woman”.1

Together the two lists forbid “any man” from “lying down with” his mother, another of his father’s wives, his mother-in-law, his sister or half-sister, his granddaughter, his aunt (by blood or marriage), his brother’s wife, or his daughter-in-law.2 A man is also forbidden to marry a woman and her mother.3

Abraham says his wife, Sarah, is his half-sister when he is explaining himself to King Avimelekh.4 But since he previously deceived Avimelekh by pretending Sarah was unmarried, the reader cannot be sure he is telling the truth.

Neither list mentions sex between a man and his niece. Was it acceptable? In the book of Genesis, Nachor marries his niece Milcah.5 In Joshua and Judges, Caleb’s daughter Achsah marries Otniel, but it is ambiguous whether Otniel is Caleb’s younger brother or younger kinsman.6 Midrash from the first millennium C.E. turns some other marriages in the Torah into uncle-niece unions without real support from the biblical text. The Talmud, however, approves of a man marrying his niece on the ground that he is already fond of her:

One who loves his neighbors … and who marries the daughter of his sister, a woman he knows and is fond of as a family relative and not only as a wife … about him the verse states: “Then shall you call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say: Here I am” (Isaiah 58:9). (Yevamot 62b-63a)7

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The most egregious omission in the incest lists in Acharey Mot and Kedoshim is sex between a father and his daughter. Yet we know, from a story in the book of Genesis, that calling someone a child of such a union is an insult.

When God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two angels pull Lot, his wife, and his two unmarried daughters out of their house in Sodom and urge them to flee.  Lot’s wife looks back and becomes a pillar of salt, but the other three travel on and move into a cave in the hills above the fire-blasted plain.

And the older one said to the younger one: “Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to come into us in the way of all the earth. Go, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie down with him, and we will stay alive through our father’s seed.” (Genesis 19:31-32)

They take turns, the older daughter lying with him on the first night, the younger on the second night.

And the two daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. And the child of the older one was a son, and she called his name Moav; he is the father of [the people of] Moav to this day. And the younger one, she also became pregnant with a son, and she called his name Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the children of Ammon to this day. (Genesis 19:36-38)

The political point of this tale is to denigrate the neighboring kingdoms of Moav and Ammon by claiming that their founding fathers are the children of incest.8 It was probably all too common for men to molest their underage daughters then, as it is today. But a story about adult women molesting their father might seem both humorous and sordid to the ancient Israelites—and therefore an effective way to bias the listeners toward supporting the Kingdom of Israel’s occasional wars with Moav and/or Ammon over territory on the east side of the Jordan River.9

Within the storyline of Genesis, Lot’s daughters are not disobeying God.  There are no divine laws against incest until this week’s double portion in Leviticus, and the only statement in those lists that could apply to a father-daughter liaison is the introductory “Any man may not approach any flesh of his flesh to uncover nakedness”. The book of Genesis does not use this general divine rule retroactively; Nachor’s marriage to his niece and Abraham’s claim that he married his half-sister pass without censure.

If the decision of Lot’s daughters to use their father in order to have children does not count as disobeying God, does it count as an immoral act?

I examine this question in the book I am writing about moral psychology in Genesis, and conclude that even if there really were no other men in left alive on earth, it would be wrong to produce children who would have no opportunity for satisfying lives in an empty world. Lot’s two daughters are understandably traumatized (and not thinking clearly, or they would realize the earth is not entirely depopulated). But they would be more righteous if they denied themselves the comfort children could bring them.

Ethical reasons for avoiding incest include drawbacks for the children of the union (although in most cases the drawback is an increased chance of genetic diseases). But there is a compelling ethical reason to avoid incest even when no children result: the combination of incompatible roles. The worst combination is when a parent, who exercises authority over and responsibility for a child, has sex with the child, who tries to please the powerful parent and cannot give free consent. This is child abuse, and plainly unethical, whether God condemns it or not.

When Lot’s daughters render their father helpless through drink and then take advantage of him, are they committing elder abuse?

  1. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
  2. Leviticus 18:7-16, 20:11-12, 20:17, 20:19-21. Genesis 38:6-26 makes an exception to the rule about sex with one’s daughter-in-law.
  3. Leviticus 20:14.
  4. Genesis 20:12.
  5. Genesis 11:29. Nachor is Abraham’s brother. Subsequently Abraham’s son Isaac marries their granddaughter Rebecca, Isaac’s first cousin once removed. Then Isaac and Rebecca’s son Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, his uncle Lavan’s daughters and his own first cousins.
  6. Caleb is listed as “ben Yefuneh” in Numbers 13:6. Judges 1:13 says: And Otniel, ben Kenaz, the younger achi of Caleb, captured it for him, and he gave him Akhsah, his daughter, for a wife. Ben (בֶּן) = son of, male descendant of. Achi (אֲחִי) = brother of, kinsman of.
  7. William Davidson translation, sefaria.org.
  8. The names of the two sons are examples of folk etymology. Moab, Moav (מוֹאָב) in Hebrew, is explained as m- (מְ) = from + av (אָב) = father.   Ben-Ammi (בֶּן־עַמִּי) means “child of Ammon” or “Ammonite”, but it is also ben (בֶּן) = child of, son of + ammi (עַמִּי) = my paternal relatives.
  9. See Judges 3:26-30, 11:29-33; 1 Samuel 11:1-13; 2 Samuel 8:2, 12:26-31; 2 Kings 3:4-27.

 

Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2

April 1, 2021 at 12:51 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Passover/Pesach, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask; these are the four kinds of children in the Passover Seder.  Can we find them among Jacob’s progeny?

Last week I argued that out of the three of Jacob’s children with speaking roles in the book of Genesis, Reuben is an unwise wise child, and Judah is a reformed wicked child.  You can read that post here: Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1.

The only other one of Jacob’s children who speaks is Joseph.  In the Passover Haggadah, the simple child says only, “What is this?”  Joseph says a great deal more.

Joseph: Complicated Simple Son

In fact, he talks too much.  By the time he is seventeen, four of his older brothers hate him because he brings bad reports of them to their father, Jacob.1  The rest hate him because he is Jacob’s favorite.  Joseph should notice their animosity, since “they could not speak to him in peace”.2

Joseph Reveals his Dream to his Brothers, by James J.J. Tissot

Yet he tells his brothers about two dreams in which they (thinly disguised as sheaves of grain, then as stars) are bowing down to him.3

Only a simple child would tell these dreams to brothers who already hate him.  Does Joseph realize how his older brothers feel?  Is he unable to imagine that they might lash out at him?

Their father, Jacob (who may also be deficient in emotional intelligence) sends Joseph off alone to check up on his brothers and their flocks.  As soon as he reaches them, they seize him, throw him into a pit, and argue about whether to kill him, let him slowly starve, or sell him as a slave.4  He pleads with them to no avail,5 and before the day is over he is a slave bound for Egypt.

The next time Joseph speaks is when his Egyptian master’s wife tries to seduce him, and he explains that he will not lie down with her because it would be wicked.6   It does not even occur to him to flatter her when he refuses her advances. She does not take his rejection well, and Joseph ends up in Pharaoh’s prison.

One morning in prison Joseph notices that two of his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s head butler and head baker, have “bad expressions”7—the first sign that he is noticing the feelings of others.  He asks them why, and they say there is no one to interpret their dreams.

Joseph in Prison, by James J.J. Tissot

Then Joseph said to them: “Aren’t dream interpretations for God?  Please tell me.”  (Genesis 40:8)

Is Joseph giving credit to God for his upcoming interpretations, or is he claiming that God gives him secret information?  Probably both.  Joseph’s predictions based on their dreams come true, and two years later when Pharaoh has a pair of puzzling dreams, the head butler recommends Joseph.

This time Joseph says God is revealing the future to Pharaoh through those dreams.8  The implication that God is giving Pharaoh, not Joseph, secret information indicates Joseph’s increasing sophistication.  He says the dreams are forecasting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and throws in some advice: Pharaoh should appoint an insightful man to organize stockpiling and later distribution of food.  Impressed, Pharaoh appoints Joseph.  From then on, he is the viceroy of Egypt.9

When Joseph’s ten older brothers come to the viceroy to buy grain during the first year of famine they do not recognize him.  Joseph plays a complicated game, arranging elaborate tests to see if his brothers have reformed.10  Joseph’s premise is that he can judge his older brothers according to how they treat Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son and his new favorite.

Joseph still has grandiose impulses, and adds details to his game that are not strictly necessary.  For example, he invites them to dinner and seats them in order from oldest to youngest, although no Egyptian could guess their exact birth order.  They are astonished by his apparent magical power.11

The final test comes when Joseph plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack, then accuses him of stealing it and decrees that the punishment is to stay in Egypt as the viceroy’s slave.  Joseph’s ten older brothers say they are all guilty and they will all be slaves with him.  Even this is not enough for Joseph, who insists that only Benjamin will stay.12  Finally Judah breaks the deadlock by explaining that their father could not live without Benjamin.  Judah begs to be the viceroy’s slave instead of Benjamin, and Joseph finally breaks down and admits who he is.13

But there is one more complication.  Joseph is so attached to his role as the savior of Egypt, Canaan, and his own family, that he says:

“And now don’t worry and don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me.  Because hey! God sent me ahead of you to save life.  For this was a pair of years of the famine in the midst of the land, and there will be five more years when there will be no plowing nor reaping …  So now, you did not send me here!  Rather, God did, and he placed me as a father-figure to Pharaoh and as a master to all his household and a ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5-8)

By the end of this speech Joseph is bragging about his high position.  As Pharaoh’s 39-year-old viceroy, he is older and wiser than he was at age 17.  But he is still as full of himself as a simple child.  He is also full of his theory of divine providence (at least for him and his family), and does not see that his brothers need his forgiveness.

Joseph invites the whole extended family to live in Egypt and benefit from his munificence.  Yet when their father Jacob dies, his ten older sons send a message to Joseph begging for a pardon.  They still do not feel safe with a simple child who has absolute power over them and never explicitly forgave them.

Then Joseph said to them: “Don’t be afraid!  Am I instead of God?  And you, you planned evil for me, but God planned it for good, in order to bring about this time of keeping many people alive.  And now, don’t be afraid; I, myself, will provide for you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts.  (Genesis 50:19-21)

Whatever Joseph says to comfort them works, and they have a change of heart.  But I wish one of Joseph’s brothers would protest, “What is this?”

Benjamin: Speechless Son

Jacob has nine sons who are not quoted in the Torah.  He also has a daughter, Dinah, who is silent about her own rape, the subsequent proposed marriage, and the murder of her would-be bridegroom.14  I am tempted to call Dinah the fourth child in the Passover Seder, the “child who does not know how to ask”, so I could grandstand about how women in the Ancient Near East were pawns and chattels of the men, deprived even of the right to speak for themselves.15

But if Reuben, Judah, and Joseph correspond to the three children who ask questions, then the fourth child, who is amazed by the Passover rituals but cannot put together a question, must be Benjamin.

Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s children, and the only one who does not commit or witness any terrible deeds.  He has not even been born when Dinah is raped and Jacob’s oldest sons massacre all the men in the town of Shekhem.  He is only a toddler in Jacob’s camp when Joseph’s older brothers sell him as a slave.  The first year Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, he does not let Benjamin go.  The second year, when Benjamin does go, he is a married man with children of his own—but he is leaving his father’s home for the first time in his life!

He is silent—probably flabbergasted—when the viceroy’s steward “finds” the silver cup in his pack and accuses him of stealing it.  Benjamin remains silent when his older brothers tell the viceroy they will all stay in Egypt and suffer the punishment of slavery.  Another man might protest at this point, but Benjamin is not used to making his own ethical decisions.

After the viceroy reveals that he is Joseph, he embraces Benjamin first.

And [Joseph] fell on the neck of Benjamin, his brother, and he sobbed, and Benjamin sobbed on his neck.  And he kissed all his brothers and he sobbed on them.  And after that his brothers spoke to him.  (Genesis 45:14-15)

Benjamin is the only one of Joseph’s brothers who sobs back.  He is overwhelmed by Joseph’s affection, and unlike his older brothers, he is innocent of any wrongdoing.  He can react freely, and non-verbally.

Like the fourth child in the Passover Seder, Benjamin is the baby of the family.  It does not even occur to him to question what is going on.  We do not learn whether he ever grows up.

  1. Genesis 37:2.
  2. Genesis 37:3-4.
  3. Genesis 37:5-9.
  4. Reuben argues that they should throw Joseph in the pit without killing him outright, implying that he will eventually die of dehydration.  Reuben’s plan is to sneak back and rescue him (Genesis 37:21-22).  Judah persuades his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan (Genesis 37:26-28).
  5. Genesis 42:21.
  6. Genesis 39:8-9.
  7. Genesis 40:7.
  8. Genesis 41:25.
  9. Genesis 41:39-44.
  10. Genesis 42:9-25, 43:26-44:17.
  11. Genesis 43:33.
  12. Genesis 44:16-17.
  13. Genesis 44:18-45:3.
  14. Genesis 34:1-31.
  15. Except for Rebecca, who can say “yes” or “no” to her engagement to Isaac (Genesis 24:57-58).

 

Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1

March 24, 2021 at 7:21 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Passover/Pesach, Vayeishev | 1 Comment

The number four is big in the Passover/Pesach seder.  The Haggadah (the script for the ritual) is punctuated by four cups of wine.  Between the first cup and the second, the youngest person present sings the four questions, we read about four rabbis who stayed up all night, and we answer questions from four kinds of children.

The Four Seder-night Sons, American Haggadah, circa 1920

“The Four Sons” Passover tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and might date as early as the second century C.E.1

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.3  Three of these instructions are preceded in the Torah by a hypothetical question from a child.  These three questions are similar in the Torah, the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and the Haggadah:

  1. The “wise child”: “What are the terms and the decrees and the laws which God, our God, has commanded us?”
  2. The “wicked child”: “What does this service mean to you?”
  3. The “simple child”: “What is this?”
  4. The “child who does not know how to ask”.  (This child corresponds to an implied question about why everyone must eat only unleavened bread during the seven-day festival.  Moses gives the answer: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: This is because God did for me when I went free from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:8))

The three questions may be similar, but the answers in the Haggadah leave out a lot of the information in the Torah, and one answer, to the so-called wicked child, is quite different.3  You can compare the Torah versions and the Haggadah versions in my 2019 post: Pesach: Changing Four Sons.

Every year as Pesach approaches, I enjoy playing with the idea of four kinds of children.  In 2012 I applied the four children model to Aaron’s four sons in this post: Shemini: Aaron’s Four SonsIn 2014 I wrote a post about the four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah in this post: Passover: Children of Four Worlds.

This year I am writing my book on morality in Genesis, and thinking about  Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter.  Only three of his children get speaking roles in the Torah: Reuben, Judah, and Joseph.  Do they correspond to the three children who ask questions in the Haggadah?  What about the fourth child, the silent one?

Reuben: Unwise Son

Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, is an unwise “wise child”.  I can imagine him asking for all the rules because he wants to do the right thing.  But then he blunders into some stupidity and messes it up.

When Joseph’s ten older brothers see him from a distance and plot to seize him, throw him into a pit, and kill him, Reuben says: “Let us not take his life!”  His brothers ignore him, so he waters down his protest.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into that pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t send a hand against him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and restore him to his father.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:22)

After Joseph is at the bottom of the pit, the other brothers sit down for a meal, but Reuben wanders away for some reason not recorded in the Torah.  Early commentators invented excuses for Reuben’s absence at the critical moment, but I maintain Reuben is not thinking clearly.  What could be more important than staying near the pit in case his murderous brothers suddenly decide to act?

And they do.  While Reuben is gone, Judah proposes selling Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed for Egypt.

And he [Reuben] returned to his brothers, and he said: “The boy is not here!  And I, where can I go?”  (Genesis 37:30)

Reuben intended to do the right thing, but he was not wise enough to carry it out properly.

Twenty-one years later, during the first year of a long famine, the viceroy of Egypt tells the ten brothers that he will not sell them grain again unless they bring their youngest brother down with them.  Back in Canaan the famine continues a second year, and the brothers try to persuade their father to let Benjamin go, even though he has become Jacob’s favorite now that Joseph is gone.  Reuben knows the whole family will starve to death unless his father lets Benjamin go, so he says:

“You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you!  Put him in my hand, and I myself will return him to you.”  (Genesis 42:37)

He sounds ready to make a noble sacrifice.  But why would Jacob want to kill two of his own grandsons?  Once again, Reuben tries to be the wise child who does the right thing, but what he actually does is far from wise.

Judah: Reformed Wicked Son

The “wicked son” in the Haggadah asks, “What does this service mean to you?”  In the Torah it is an innocent question, and the parent merely answers that they are making a Passover offering to God to remember when God smote the Egyptians but passed over their households.  But in the Haggadah and the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, the parent accuses this son of separating himself from other Jews by saying “you” instead of “us”.4

Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, starts out as selfish as the Haggadah’s version of the “wicked son”. When Joseph is naked at the bottom of the pit, Judah is the one who says:

“What is the profit if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?”  (Genesis 37:26)

He persuades his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan instead, and they are paid 20 silver pieces for him.  At this point, Judah is indeed wicked, separating himself from any empathy toward his younger brother Joseph.  Later, he deprives his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of her traditional right to stay in his family by having a child with her deceased husband’s nearest male relative.  Tamar deceives Judah in order to get pregnant by him, and when Judah sentences her to death for adultery, she produces evidence that he is the father of her unborn child.  Judah’s eyes are opened, and he admits he was wrong, saying: “She is more righteous than I am!”  (Genesis 38:26)

After that wake-up call, Judah exhibits the empathy that I believe is implied by the question “What does this service mean to you?”  I think the so-called wicked child is actually interested in the feelings of other people, like Judah later in his life.

When Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt so his sons can buy food during the second year of famine, Judah is the one who finally makes him change his mind.

Then Judah said to his father, Israel: “I will bring him.  Send the young man with me, and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die—we and you and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge for him; from my hand you may seek him.  If I do not bring him back to you and produce him before you, I will be guilty to you forever.”  (Genesis 43:8)

Judah’s word is good; when the viceroy of Egypt plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack and accuses him of stealing it, Judah volunteers to be the viceroy’s slave instead of his brother.  This act, along with a moving story about Jacob’s love for Benjamin, turns the tide, and the viceroy confesses that he is actually their brother Joseph.  Thanks to Judah’s empathy, the family arrives at a happy ending.

*

Does Joseph, the third of Jacob’s children who has a speaking role in the Torah, correspond in any way to the Haggadah’s “simple son”?  And who is the silent child?  You can find out next week in Passover, Vayeishev, & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators.  The four sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in sefaria.org/Mekhilta_d’Rabbi_Yishmael.
  3. Deuteronomy 6:20-24 (wise), Exodus 12:27 (wicked), Exodus 13:15 (simple), and Exodus 13:6-8 (silent).
  4. This is outrageous, since in the Torah the wise son’s question is “What are the duties and the decrees and the laws that God, our God, commanded to you?”
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